One of the most common yearnings expressed by individuals in the West, is the desire for happiness. The founding fathers of the United States declared that the American people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And pursue it we have!
Hollywood advocates that that we will find happiness when we are rich enough, find true love, or encounter some magical event. We are conditioned to look for happiness somewhere else: in the future, in someone else, or in some outside situation.
Question is: how well has it served us?
When we look at the sky-rocketing levels of addiction, breakup, depression and unhappiness that run rampant in this society despite it being one of the most affluent in the world, it is clear that chasing after happiness outside ourselves, does not work.
You see, happiness is not out there; it is an inside job. And that means that you and I have the power to be happy right now, right where we are. If we are unhappy, perhaps it is time to take a look at the nature of happiness so we can stop dreaming about it and take practical steps to become happier. Yes, happiness is not something we stumble upon; it is something we create, something we become.
Researchers have found that we do not need to always get what we want in order to be happy. We can be just as happy if we don’t get what we want, as we’d be if we do actually get what we want.
In fact, we can manufacture our own happiness – and if we desire happiness, it is essential that we learn how to do this.
Researchers distinguish between two kinds of happiness: natural and synthetic happiness. Researcher Dan Gilbert defines them this way: “Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.”
Natural or spontaneous happiness is what we experience when things are going our way and fortune smiles on us. This is the kind we are most familiar with, but it is also fleeting, unreliable and intermittent.
Synthesized or manufactured happiness is the kind of happiness we create when we change the way we look at things; the happiness we synthesize when we learn to make lemonade from the lemons in our lives, and it is every bit as real as spontaneous happiness.
In fact, when we fixate on finding spontaneous happiness, we miss the opportunity to manufacture happiness with what is already in our lives, and we become miserable!
A good example would be looking at how the two types of happiness interact in relationship. In dating, we look to find what we want; in marriage, we need to find a way to like what we’ve gotten!
New relationships are marked by spontaneous happiness; whereas the challenge of marriage is to learn how to synthesize happiness with the person and situation we have chosen. Chasing after the next fleeting experience of spontaneous happiness won’t last; it is the process of manufacturing happiness within the constraints of our situation that brings lasting fulfillment and joy. Ironically, this process of synthesizing happiness works best when we are totally stuck or trapped!
Synthetic happiness acts like our psychological immune system. It works to keep us happy. In his book, Stumbling upon Happiness, author Dan Gilbert describes it as a system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious, that help us change our views of situations so we can feel better about the situations we find ourselves in.
Author Wayne Dyer put it another way when he said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at, change.”
Our brains are notoriously bad at predicting our happiness. Experiments have repeatedly shown that we overestimate both anticipated pleasure and pain. Our prefrontal cortex simulates that getting something we want, is more important than it really is – it exaggerates the impact of events on our happiness, whether positive or negative.
For example, we overestimate that winning the lottery will increase our happiness or that losing the use of financial security or becoming a paraplegic will completely ruin us. In reality, individuals test at similar levels of happiness one year after winning lottery or becoming a paraplegic. In other words, both our desires and worries are overblown.
We can manufacture our own happiness from within – right now, with where we are and what we have. When we learn to synthesize happiness from within, the very events and outcomes we dread, can turn into new opportunities for happiness.
Studies further indicate that freedom and choice can negatively impact our happiness. When we have choices, we worry about opportunities lost. Think about that the next time you are in the grocery aisle trying to select a product!
Freedom is the enemy of synthetic happiness. While freedom can bring about spontaneous happiness when it offers what we want, it robs us of the opportunity to synthesize happiness. You see, we only learn to like what we have when we have no choice! It is when we are feeling stuck that we have the opportunity to create happiness from within by learning to appreciate what we do have.
Most of us tend to have a basic level of happiness that we revert to. Not everybody ascribes to the “bullying cheerfulness” of false happiness, as physician Andrew Weil describes the prevalent cult of happiness in America.
In his book, Spontaneous Happiness, Weil says that there is an inverse relationship between affluence and contentment: The more we have, the less contented we seem to be. In America, the cultural expectation that we’re to be happy all the time and our children should be happy all the time is toxic, and it gets in the way of true emotional well-being.
Mahatma Ghandi perhaps put it best when he said: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Genuine happiness comes from within, and is synthesized by a lifestyle that integrates personal values, gratitude, laughter and forgiveness. In the long run, these qualities allow us to synthesize happiness as an enduring form of contentment and serenity, independent of external circumstance.
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